Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Rethinking Museums and Restitution – Communication, National Identity, and Curatorship Practices at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac

Symposium on Confronting Colonial Objects: Rethinking Museums and Restitution – Communication, National Identity, and Curatorship Practices at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac

[Sasha Merigot is a Master’s Student in Political Science at Sciences Po Paris and a graduate from Leiden University College The Hague, winning the Thesis of Merit award with the thesis on Reproducing and Re-Constructing National Identity at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac]

A key theme of Confronting Colonial Objects is the complicity of collectors, museums and racial science in cultural takings. Chapter 2 examines the close connection between ‘curiosity, power and prestige’ in the expansion of Empire, and the performative features of colonial collecting. It shows how the ‘birth of modern museum enhanced the strife for national prestige and the accumulation of encyclopedic knowledge’ (p. 118). The professionalization of museums increased the power to ‘tell stories about empire through objects’ (p.118). Objects were used to construct social differences, demonstrate moral superiority or became ‘symbols of prestige and self-identification’ in their new environment (p.118).  Similar performative features are reflected in contemporary restitution processes. The book argues in favor of a cultural relational justice approach, which goes beyond the traditional divide between cultural nationalism and internationalism (Chapter 9) and recognizes ‘the plurality of stakeholders in a claims process’ (p. 527). It makes a case that cultural objects are essential ‘in framing a new modernity and re-imaging the idea of the museum itself’ (p. 60).  However, contemporary restitution approaches continue to be marked by contradictions and (post)colonial continuities. They may marginalize alternative histories, ‘whitewash’ responsibility for the past or produce new forms of social domination or competition through a re-branding or marketing of national identity (e.g., the benevolent returning state).  Confronting Colonial Objects pleads for a re-invention of epistemic frames and semantics (pp. 467-472).

In this post, I wish to explore this tension. I will show that restitution is important for state identity, formation and legitimation. I examine how domestic restitution policies may be used to reframe or recast national identity or even create ‘colonial aphasia’ (Stoler), resulting in a lack of engagement with the Empire, colonization, experiences of colonial rule, and legacies of colonialism.  I will do this based on a case study of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (MQB), which was inaugurated by President Jacques Chirac in 2006 as a museum that celebrates diversity and bears a ‘message of peace, tolerance, and respect for others’ (Chirac) and served as a site for the restitution of 26 artifacts to Benin in 2021 (See also Confronting Colonial Objects, “Dahomey returns,” pp. 483-486). Drawing on critical discourse analysis and Louise Ravelli’s framework of museum communication, I argue that the MQB reproduces central features of French national identity such as universalism, exceptionalism, and colonial aphasia regarding restitution while reconstructing them in part to include more progressive values. These insights are essential to understanding how French national identity changes and adapts to contemporary issues and how France’s colonial status is renegotiated during restitution. They also suggest that contemporary changes in museology towards restitution are less pronounced than publicly asserted.  

1. National Identity Construction

National identity is a seminal concept in world politics. It is widely seen as a social and discursive construct. For example, Gellner and Anderson have described the nation as an invention subjectively shaped by technological societal shifts. This process of ‘inventing’ the nation relies on social practices that produce and reproduce national identity, which Hobsbawm calls “invented traditions.”. Museums built by French presidents and politicians throughout the 20th century are sites that maintain invented traditions as symbols of the French nation. Their meaning-making practices (i.e., representation, interpretation, inventions) contribute to the production and reproduction of national identity. Discourses, such as those legitimized by museums, promote a particular vision of French national identity. According to Nora, museums are “lieux de mémoire” where memory and national identity interact. As Weiser has shown, national museums are symbols of national identity as they represent the nation’s past and future. The  MQB, as a “musée de France” and a symbol of ‘French-ness,’ is imbued with the ability to legitimate, represent, and (re)construct French national identity. 

Three central concepts of French national identity are ‘exceptionalism,’ ‘universalism,’ and ‘colonial aphasia (Chafer and Godin). Exceptionalism refers to the idea that France differs from other countries, especially in politics (“L’exception française”). Universalism is central to Republican ideology. It corresponds to a vision of France as a ‘beacon of universal values’, carried by the idea of French ‘rayonnement’, a French term designating France’s far-reaching influence. Both exceptionalism and universalism were central to colonial ideology and are thus especially relevant to analyzing contemporary French politics regarding the restitution of former colonies’ heritage. The concept of “colonial aphasia” designates France’s relationship to colonial memory as characterized by an ‘occlusion of knowledge’. Rather than an act of forgetting, memory is made inaccessible and actively dissociated, making colonial histories illegible.

2. Creation of Identity in the MQB’s Discursive Practices

The MQB reconstructs French national identity through its communication around restitution. Its construction was an attempt to redefine national consciousness. As Amato has argued, it marked a  ‘reassessment of the way France sees itself and others”, guided by an effort to change French colonial mentality. Chirac aimed to convey a dynamic image of the French nation that is ‘sensitive to cultural differences’ (Nordinr). Ravelli has conceptualized museums as texts where communication is defined by ‘the way a whole institution, or an exhibition within it, makes meaning, communicating to and with its public’. The discursive practices of the MQB largely reproduce and reconstruct key traits of French national identity, namely universalism, exceptionalism, and symptoms of colonial aphasia.

This is reflected on several levels. One element is organizational meaning.  The museum produces texts highlighting specific conceptions of French national identity. Through public documents on the museum’s cultural and scientific mission (Projet Scientifique et Culturel), the restitution to Benin (Bénin, la Restitution de 26 Oeuvres des Trésors Royaux d’Abomey) and provenance research (Recherches sur l’origine et l’histoire des collections du musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac), the MQB defines itself as a knowledgeable leader and agenda-setter when it comes to the coordination of research around looted colonial-era artifacts. It defends French initiatives by presenting the French restitution project as legitimate, further reinforcing the idea that the French possess exceptional qualities and a claim to universal values and knowledge that warrant their position and the MQB’s as a center of expertise, research, and cultural and political initiatives. Thus, the meaning constructed reproduces French national identity as universalist and exceptional. 

A second layer is representational meaning. In its communication and research practices, the museum reproduces colonial aphasia, universalism, and exceptionalism through more progressive values such as transparency, cooperation, and critical reflection. For instance, scientific research is seen as ‘fundamental,’ and at ‘the center of all the museum’s activities.’ In this way, the  MQB represents itself as a scientific, thorough, and rigorous agent responsible for uncovering an object’s history and origins, leading restorations, and providing conservation expertise. With these emphases, the MQB reproduces French exceptionalism and universalism by demonstrating its legitimacy in producing knowledge and supporting the idea of “rayonnement,” central to universalism. 

In its communication around restitution, the MQB represents France’s colonial and military history and the restitution sources in a way that reproduces colonial aphasia and universalism. For instance, the MQB refers to military and colonial history as periods where artifacts were taken by force, looted, and displayed as trophies (using the terms ‘war loot’, ‘trophy’, ‘old French colonial empire’, ‘colonial period’). Colonialism is described as a project of the past, while the sources of restitution are most often attributed to French law and politics. 

In its official discourse, the museum defines itself as a space of exchange and cooperation, which promotes accessibility and attempts to de-center the discourses around restitution. It engages in sharing practices as a central component of restitution, conservation, and restoration. However, the logic remains self-centered. While including collaborative initiatives in its research projects and a desire to co-construct discourses around restitution with the relevant origin communities, the MQB  still defines its collections as ‘our’ collections, highlighting the proprietary nature of the artifacts in its ownership. This language reflects the French conception of heritage, according to which national collections belong to the French people. Collaboration, debate, and de-centering remain thereby part of French conceptions of heritage.

A third layer is interactional meaning. It is related to the way in which MQB positions itself vis-à-vis experts and researchers, its audience, and communities of origin. The idea of partnership is fundamental to the museum’s projects, including research and exhibitions surrounding restitution processes. It reflects a friction which has synergies with the colonial notion of tutelage. It constructs communities of origin as both partners (‘partners’ and ‘counterparts’) and pupils (‘it’s necessary to guide them’). The museum welcomes sharing practices and cooperation but also sees itself as having the authority to instruct origin communities. It organizes programs and allocates funding to teach and train museum staff, experts, and researchers from outside the museum. This became apparent during the restitution of the 26 artifacts to Benin, when the MQB participated in helping to build museums and curating in Benin. The MQB thus values ‘dialogue’ and ‘mutual enrichment’ with communities of origin and aims to transcend imagined hierarchies between artifacts, cultures, and knowledges. However, these communities are not fully treated as agents who are able to take charge of their own artifacts and decide their fate in a process determined by them. The museum alternates between taking an authoritative role towards communities of origin and treating them as partners.

The permanent exhibition barely mentions colonization and usually describes the institutional history of objects, erasing the colonial histories and exploitative dynamics that underlie the acquisition of the collections. In the permanent exhibition, the content is presented as neutral: no arguments or judgments are put forward. French colonialism is only mentioned briefly and used to explain geography, while European colonization is mentioned once, as are violence and military history. The museum emphasizes the aesthetics of non-Western art. This focus on aesthetics contributes to a disconnect between colonial memory and exhibition practices, contributing to colonial aphasia. This disconnect is especially evident between the permanent exhibition and the temporary exhibitions. The latter are often left entirely up to external actors and open up discussions about colonial memory. This ambivalence and the fact that temporary exhibitions are only provisional setups further accentuates an inability to articulate the relation between the collections at the museum and their meaning with regard to French colonialism. 

In some cases, the MQB uses concepts of diversity and plurality. It talks about ‘different worldviews’ and recognizes the diversity of cultures. For example, in the ‘Africa’ section, it aims to show the ‘diversity of urban and rural art’. The MQB thereby seeks to bridge the gap between its traditional role as heritage manager, supporting a French conception of legitimacy in collecting and displaying non-Western artifacts while attempting to bring colonial history and plurality into its display practices and policies.

In order to bridge the gap between the museum’s purpose as defined by its permanent exhibition space and the willingness to include a diversity of perspectives and worldviews into its curatorship and research practices, the MQB needs to extend the space allocated to dialogue beyond institutional boundaries. The permanent exhibition should be perceived as a site of contestation if the museum is to concretely challenge and redefine its relation to its history, French history, and national memories and identities. By organizing events that bring together various audiences and actors in restitution, the museum is in a position to involve artists, communities, visitors, and practitioners in a broader discussion about ownership, art, and justice.

3. Implications

My study shows that France’s colonial status is renegotiated in the context of restitution. The MQB largely reproduces French national identity as universal and exceptional in line with France’s traditional imperial identity but additionally redefines French national identity as inclusive and based on cooperation while serving as a knowledge provider and instructor to origin communities. The museum’s voice remains the leading voice when it comes to research and the permanent exhibition. The reconstruction of national identity is only partial and largely in line with liberal progressive ideals of diversity and inclusion, as opposed to a radical change in power relations. This approach may influence how French society perceives itself and defines its relationship to restitution and how society responds to colonial memory. 

The example of the MQB suggests Macron’s restitution policies are fostering only gradual and limited change in the museum sector. On the international scale, changes in relations between former colonizers and the formerly colonized may be slower and more ‘piecemeal’ than anticipated. A potential avenue for museums to be more inclusive is to focus on opening up the space, both literally and metaphorically, to make collaboration central to their purpose.

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